The Secrets of Organizing Your Higher Ed Site, Part 2 of 5: Explore

Blog Single
Share this Post:

This is the second part in a five-part series. You should read the first part first.

In this series, we're discussing just how to promote a more positive user experience and overall design through better website content organization.


The first part of the series covers the first step in the process: Inventory. You can check that post out here. In it, we introduce you to some of the tools and approaches you’ll need to get a full view of your website as it exists today. We also provide you with a free content audit template to get started.

In step two, or the “Exploration” phase as defined by Anthony D. Paul, the goal is to identify any unfulfilled audience needs and desired content types not currently utilized on your website. Through the inventory phase, you were able to gain a good idea of what currently exists on your site. Now, the exploration phase can help you determine if you’re actually meeting your users’ needs. Therefore, in this step, an additional goal is to discover what resonates with your users so you can begin to see how your content should be organized through functional and navigational site elements such as the menu labels or the site map.

Website Exploration
Image via Pexels


As put by a Comparative Analysis of the Web Marketing Strategies implemented by the Higher Education Institutions Report, “It is vital for the institutions to create a ‘virtual self,’ pleasant from an aesthetic point of view, easy to use, to contain all the information that is interesting for students and not only because the web page has become a critical communications instrument.”

In other words, a website is an essential point of communication between an institution and the public. Through a strong and integrated online identity, institutions can easily communicate messages in a timely manner and in a more powerful way through the use of links or visuals. However, if an institution’s online identity and communications don’t meet the needs of the target audience, or aren’t well-structured, your site will be of little use.

By defining and determining the needs of your audience, you can begin to understand how best to organize your site, as well as start to see what content you should keep, alter or discard.

During this particular phase, the end-goal is to determine what your website is missing. What unfulfilled needs does your audience have? What new content types do you want? What menu labels, voice, imagery and content will best resonate with your users? Grab a notebook and let’s get started!


Define & Prioritize User Groups: Roles vs. Personas

“Every website has an audience. And every audience has a goal. Advocating for end-user needs is the very foundation of the user experience disciplines… The issue, of course, is that we cannot advocate for those whom we assume to know. So we go to the source: we interview, we learn and we determine who, exactly, these mystery users are. In doing so, we answer the two most important questions of the discovery stage: who are our audiences, and what do they want from our website? Then -- and only then -- can we begin the process toward better content.” - Audiences, Outcomes, and Determining User Needs by Corey Vilhauer

Who is your Target Audience?
Image via Pexels


In determining what’s missing from your site, you’ll first want to have a good idea of who is using it, and for what. There are a number of ways to think about it and categorize your audiences. Two popular ways are through the development and use of roles, and personas. Though these terms are often used interchangeably, they are actually quite different.



Roles are a great way of segmenting your audience based on specific classes of visitors that interact with your site. Roles are defined by their relationship to your site and your calls to action. For example, for a higher education institution, some possible roles could include the following:

  • Prospective students (high school graduates and soon-to-be graduates)

  • Parents of prospective students (may contribute to the decision-making process and often fund the student’s continued studies)

  • Relatives and friends (may contribute to the decision-making process and offer support to the future student, financially or otherwise)

You could break this down even further, dividing each role by those who haven’t yet visited your site, or haven’t taken an essential action (like taking a walking tour of the institution, or filling out a contact or application form) and those that have expressed further interest in the school or its communications in some way or another (such as signing up for an email list to hear about future offers or special events). All of these visitor roles are at a different point in their journey. It’s up to you to determine what type of web content they will best respond to.

 Walking Tour of the Institution
Image via Unsplash



A persona is typically a made-up person that is used to represent important classes of potential audiences. They are often imagined in vivid detail based on their behaviors, activities, workplace environments and belief systems. This serves as a concrete image to which the design or use of the website and its communications can be compared. In doing this, you can see what works as well, as what will not work for each user persona and adjust as necessary.

Roles are different than personas. You aren’t confined to using just one or the other, and in fact, we recommend experimenting with both to see what works best for you. A persona is usually treated as a monolithic person with a fully-formed and fixed personality. In reality, most people play many different roles even in day-to-day life. In each role, their competencies and attitudes can shift dramatically.

For example, you may be punctual, confident, and task-oriented throughout your workday. After work, you could venture to a department store to try on and purchase a dress for a last-minute outing scheduled for that evening. In this setting, you may become tentative and unsure of yourself, not wanting to make the wrong decision. Even though you’re the same person (and would be represented by the same persona), you behave differently in these two roles as businesswoman and last-minute shopper.


Tools & Data Sources

Now that you have a good understanding of the different ways in which you can categorize your audiences, it’s time to start collecting data.

Data-based Decision Making
Image via Unsplash


Data-based decision-making is an essential element of continuous quality improvement and you have many tools and information sources available to you:


Search Analytics

Search analytics is the use of search data to investigate particular interactions among users conducting search, the search engine, or the content during search. The resulting analysis and aggregation of search engine statistics can be used in search engine marketing (SEM) and search engine optimization (SEO).

In other words, search analytics helps you to better understand user intent and to improve your site performance on search engines.

Search analytics includes search volume trends and analysis, reverse searching (entering websites to see their keywords), keyword monitoring, search result and advertisement history, advertising spending statistics, website comparisons, affiliate marketing statistics, and others.

Google Analytics is a fantastic resource and is full of useful information about visitor trends and behavior.

Look for missing keywords. What surprises you? What are people not visiting your site for? SEO problems might change information architecture and site organization strategy.

In addition, site search reports, or specifically zero result search data, can help you to identify missing content on your site or a problem with your site search engine.


Session Analytics

Audience reports from Google Analytics can also be helpful. The User Explorer report examines individual-user behavior at the session level.

It’s important to understand both aggregate and individual behavior on your site. Understanding aggregate behavior is important when you’re managing large efforts or campaigns, but understanding individual behavior can help you gain insight into and personalize a specific user experience.

Session Analytics
Image via Unsplash


Start to learn about people’s behavior and identify where the issues are. Where is your drop-off? Find the worst points of confusion and brainstorm some potential solutions.

“For example, if the Audience > Overview report indicates that the 18-24 segment has an unusually high bounce rate or low average session duration compared to other age groups, you can apply that segment to User Explorer, and then take a look at some individual users to see whether they’re bouncing or exiting from the same page or group of pages.

A closer examination of your content might reveal that while the graphics and copy might work well for other age groups, but they’re not especially relevant to the 18-24 segment. For example,  you might have different age groups buying the same sneaker that has been in production for 100 years, but for wholly different reasons. The 18-24 segment might be responding to what is suddenly a unique design relative to everything else in the market, while their parents are buying nostalgia. In a case like this, you want to support those different segments with the site content that is relevant to their motivations for buying.

In a case like this, you can create each segment in Analytics, apply it to the report, and export the IDs for that segment. You can then personalize the site experience based on the ID, and direct each group to the relevant content from your ads.” - Google Support Team

Website Code
Image via Unsplash


Survey Data

Surveys are a great research method for collecting information from a selected group of people using standardized questionnaires or interviews. A successful survey process also requires selecting populations for inclusion, pre-testing instruments, determining delivery methods, ensuring validity, and analyzing results.

Survey Method
Image via Flickr


Surveys that provide valid, usable results require thoughtful planning. Consider first whether the data are available through other sources or collection methods. For example:

  • Rather than asking faculty and staff how often they use a certain service within a University, internal units may be able to provide actual records

  • Utilize sign-in sheets to determine the number of students taking advantage of a new tutoring service

Other sources of information might include published reports, previous surveys and other internal data or records.

You can search for available market trend analyses and data by searching for specific types of files, such as PDFs, PPTs or XLS, by adding filetype: and the 3-letter file abbreviation. Here’s an example of a Google filetype:pdf market report search: filetype:pdf university website usability report. Try it and see what kind of results you get!

Don’t conduct surveys just because you can. A useful question to keep in mind is, “What do we want to come out of this?”

If no other data sources is available, then a survey can be very helpful.

To lessen the errors associated with surveys, it’s important to first consider these basic questions:

  • How will the survey results be used?

  • Who should be surveyed?

  • Who will design and administer the questionnaire?

  • Who will analyze the results?

  • Do we need approval to conduct this survey?


Interviews, Focus Groups

Other qualitative research methods like interviews and focus groups are good for understanding your customers on a deeper level.

Interview Data Collection Method
Image via Wikimedia Commons


When conducting individual interviews or focus groups, focus on “what works” rather than “likes.” Don’t just ask people what they like about your website. Instead, frame questions around something more tactical: How does this website support our mission today? Have you seen examples of better websites that do a good job of communicating similar messages?

Other discussion prompt examples include:

  • Does today’s website support the university brand?

    • Do people say anything about the site to you, positive or negative?

    • What makes X different to prospects and current students?

    • Does the website do an adequate job of conveying the X story?

  • Do you use the X website today?

    • What content do you access most regularly and why?

    • How does the X site compare to other school websites you’ve seen?

  • What content needs to update most frequently on today’s site?

    • Is there old or inaccurate content on today’s site?

    • Who updates that content today?

  • What would make the X website more useful?

    • Is there any content you’ve looked for on the X website but have had difficulty finding?

    • Have you experienced any technical difficulty with the site on any devices?

  • Who is the X website designed for?

    • Why do they use it

Website Audience Data Collection
Image via Pexels


Comparative Analysis

Conducting a competitive analysis is important not only to produce usability metrics, but also to aid in the strategic goal-setting and planning that happens before and during a web design and development project.

Look to other players in the market that are solving similar problems for your audience. Typically, you’ll want to reference sites with similar audiences. If you are a higher education institution, you might want to look at sites of schools of a comparable size and a similar student make-up or program base. How are these sites organized? How are they performing?

You can also consider looking outside your industry at sites that you use and like. For example, a client recently asked us to look to American Airlines for inspiration towards a university site re-design. What we realized, through internal analysis, is that American Airlines had done a fantastic job in categorizing this humongous amount of information into three site sections, driven by the site audience and where they were in their individual user journeys. The first section is dedicated to anything and everything you need to know and do before you buy your ticket (prospective AA flyers). The second contained all the information that someone would need once they have purchased their ticket, such as baggage and layover info (current AA flyers). The third offered information about the company and why you should choose them for your flying needs.

We learned from AA’s simple audience-driven navigation structures and applied it to our own university project, keeping in mind our own target audiences. It’s important to remember to learn from what’s working for others, but not to transpose these solutions as-is. Each project is unique, and should be treated as such.

Comparative Website Analysis Method
Image via Pexels


Stay tuned for Part 3: Clean

In this next phase, we get rid of things that are redundant, expired, broken/dead and leave just what needs to remain.


Contact us today for a free consultation. We look forward to working with you.

Want more? Sign up to get our monthly newsletter delivered right to your inbox. Receive links to the latest Drupal and Higher Ed-related articles, best practices, and thought-leadership commentary.

Share this Post: